Magazine article Reason

Deadly Colonialist Fables: What Dueling Origin Myths from the 19th Century Tell Us about Ourselves

Magazine article Reason

Deadly Colonialist Fables: What Dueling Origin Myths from the 19th Century Tell Us about Ourselves

Article excerpt

In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery, by Annette Kolodny, Duke University Press, 448 pages, $27.95

IN THE EARLIEST years of the second millennium, Norsemen sailed from Greenland to North America in several waves. They explored the fertile coastline and some of its inland rivers, harvested lumber and grapes, and built camps. They also met, traded with, killed, were killed by, and on the whole failed spectacularly to communicate with Native Americans. We don't know the specific identity of the native population(s) with whom the explorers made contact or the exact location of the Norse landings and settlement--including the place they named Vinland, which likely was somewhere in present-day Canada and not the United States. But one thing is certain: Christopher Columbus "discovered" nothing when he came ashore in the so-called New World, except that he was lost.

In her thought-provoking new study, In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery, literary critic Annette Kolodny looks beyond Christopher Columbus and 1492 to wrestle with the question of the earliest immigrants to North America and what they found. Her search leads her to "contact texts"--including medieval Iceland's The Greenlanders' Saga and Eirik the Red's Saga as well as folklore and related evidence from members of the Wabanaki Confederacy (Eastern Algonquian-speaking Native Americans located in Canada and northern New England)--for what they tell us about Norse contact with Native America half a millennium prior to the Columbian encounter.

If Kolodny's work did nothing but set the Norse and native texts into conversation with each other, summarize the previous scholarship on them, and confirm what now is accepted and what remains in question, it would be an achievement for which historians, archeologists, anthropologists, and ethnologists, as well as her fellow literary critics, should thank her. But that is barely the tip of the book's all-too-chilling iceberg.

Kolodny's primary undertaking tracing the way in which the idea of a "Viking past" in the United States has informed U.S. politics and policies. The result is a nuanced, compelling, and frankly disturbing case study of how the national origin stories we tell ourselves can inspire and then justify the worst impulses of human nature, often assisted by the coercive arm of the state.

Consider the ideological cage match between the isolation and contact stories for Native America. On one side, politicians, public intellectuals, and even educators argued that the impressive artifacts of native history, from copper work to pictographs to large-scale earthen mounds, could not have been the product of American Indian ingenuity. Proponents of this idea asserted that non-native peoples (take your choice, from the ancient Phoenicians to the early Irish) had settled in North America in the long-forgotten past, produced all relics that spoke of any sophistication or culture, and then were overrun by the "barbarian" American Indians. Those who used such rhetoric argued that the removal (and sometimes even extermination) of native peoples represented a just comeuppance, the righting of a historical injustice.

William Gilmore Simms summed this view up well in his 1845 textbook The History of South Carolina From its First European Discovery to its Erection Into a Republic, which baldly asserted that "according to tradition and old chronicles of the Northmen, the region [of the Carolinas] was occupied by a race, or races, of white men, to whom ... we are to ascribe the tumuli, earthworks, and numerous remains of fortified places in which the whole country abounds, rather than to the nomadic red men." The same author in an earlier essay ("The Discoveries of the Northmen" 1841) called upon his literary brethren to write "a most romantic tale" about how the red men invaded the land of the whites "in howling thousands" until those early Anglo heroes "fought to the last, and perished to a man! …

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